UAE boosts military clout with Somali base

Base would be UAE’s second military outpost in region, which is becoming strate­gic interface between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Military build-up comes amid sharp rise in tensions

2017/02/19 Issue: 94 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche

Beirut - The United Arab Emirates plans to establish a mili­tary base in Somaliland, underlining the growing military and economic influence of the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia in north-eastern Af­rica and the Gulf of Aden.

The Gulf countries’ military build-up there is a key element in their campaign to block Iran’s strategic expansion in the region. The Gulf states are part of a military coali­tion fighting Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia’s northern coast. Somaliland, a former British protectorate, is internationally rec­ognised as an autonomous region of Somalia.

On February 12th, Somaliland’s parliament overwhelmingly ap­proved a UAE plan to build a ma­jor air and naval base at the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden under a 25-year renewable agreement signed in 2015 by Abu Dhabi and the government of the resource-poor northern Somalia republic.

The base would be the UAE’s second military outpost in the region, which is becoming a strate­gic interface between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as it was between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In 2015, the Emiratis signed a 30-year lease with long-isolated Eritrea under which their military forces would operate from a base north-west of the port of Assab. That facility, only 60km across the Red Sea from Yemen, is planned to be an operational base for combat aircraft, attack helicopters, drones and naval ships. The UAE has been building up its military infrastruc­ture in Eritrea for more than a year and has reportedly conducted op­erations in Yemen from Assab.

The Emirates and Saudi Arabia lead the Arab coalition that sup­ports forces loyal to Yemen’s gov­ernment-in-exile headed by Presi­dent Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Saudi Arabia is finalising an agreement to establish a military base in Djibouti, a strategic Muslim state midway between Assab and Berbera. The facility would help the Gulf countries escalate their war in Yemen.

The Gulf states’ military build-up in the region comes amid a sharp rise in tensions, with Yemen’s Houthi rebels firing missiles at US, UAE and Saudi vessels. An Emirati vessel was hit by a missile on Octo­ber 1st and a Saudi frigate was hit by either a missile or a suicide at­tack on January 30th, killing two crewmen.

These attacks threaten shipping lanes that are strategic global trade arteries.

“The UAE has been building in­fluence in the Horn since the mid- 2000s,” Alex Mello, senior analyst with the New York-based security consultancy Horizon Client Access, was quoted by Radio France Inter­nationale as saying.

He suggested the UAE might seek to expand its naval power in the region. “We’ll probably see the UAE develop more of a blue-water power projection capability,” Mello said.

Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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